Last Week in Japan 

The Mercury's Phil Amara Explores Exotic Japan--and Almost Avoids McDonald's

Japan is so much more then anime and manga. My destination is the Kansai region of Japan, which includes the hustle bustle of urban Osaka (Japan's third-largest city) and the history of traditional Kyoto and Nara (two former capitals). My mission? Sample the food, see the sites, interview the locals, and report my findings to Mercury readers. Let's go Japan!

Japanese Fun Fact!

Basically everyone here has cutting-edge cell phones (kei tai). People adorn them with colorful straps and antenna caps depicting Mickey Mouse, or other cute characters.

DAY ONE—July 14

Osaka in July is fricking humid! So I start the day with a cool pit stop at 7-11. The oddly named Pocari Sweat--basically Japan's version of Gatorade--will keep me hydrated, replenishing my body with the vital potassium any American traveler needs. After decoding the JR train line map, I'm in Shinsaibashi. First stop is Amerika Mura, AKA "America Village." Like a more streetwise Epcot Center, these city blocks located in the southern part of Osaka have an "American" city neighborhood feel--filtered through the Japanese cultural eye, of course. Here, takoyaki (fried golf-ball-size street food, filled with chunks of octopus meat) replaces a flimsy slice of Famous Original Ray's Pizza. Like New York or Philly, there's hiphop music,--graffiti, and by Japanese standards, the place is a bit dirty. But unlike NYC or Philly, it's safe.

Amerika Mura's back streets have plenty of music and indie clothing stores. You're sure to find a t-shirt or trucker cap with off-kilter English printed on it (e.g., "Blue Morning Friend" or "Las Vegas Surf '86"). The toy stores around Amerika Mura are great. Any otaku (nerd) worth his/her salt should head for Splash and Sammy (www.splash-sammy.com). It's tricky to find, but worth the quest. The Yamashitas--the young couple that run the second-floor toy boutique--know their character goods, and always have hard-to-find items on hand.

You'll also find a lot of "fashion" hotels. There's no other way to say it: These are hotels for having SEX. A sign will read "rest" or "stay," and lists the respective cost for each. How do you find a fashion hotel? Just look for a building shaped like a castle, or one with the Statue of Liberty on top. In Japan, the ultimate symbol of freedom is also the symbol for gettin' it on.

All this walking has made me hungry. I stumble onto the Hale Hale cafe for a bowl of raw tuna and green onions on rice. I easily resist the urge to hit McDonald's or KFC. There's yummy Japanese food to try, and it's cheaper than the American fast-food franchises that have grown like weeds around here.

Japanese Fun Fact!

Japanese use a luxurious face cleanser made from the poop of the bush-warbler (uguisu). Warning: It stinks like the devil after playing tennis.

DAY TWO—July 15

I leave sensory-overloaded downtown Osaka behind for a history lesson at Osakajo (Osaka Castle). It's close to 90 degrees today, and the park around the castle offers little shade. But when I see the castle up close, it's worth braving the heat. Back in the 1600s, in the days of Tokugawa and Hideyoshi (two important figures in the unification of Japan), fierce battles raged here. It's easy to imagine the moat around the castle running red with blood.

Time to try Osaka's signature dish, okonomiyaki. I've had it before, at Kyo-Fu in Portland (4811 SE Powell)--but I've heard Osaka's is the best. This pancake-like food is stuffed with cabbage, pork, egg, ginger, green onion, and a grated mountain yam called yamaimo. The sloshy mix is stirred in a bowl and plopped on a grill in front of you. When it's done, it's painted with mayo and a tangy sauce. Delicious!

Back on the train, and bound for Kyoto, I notice an ad for the Fullmetal Alchemist stamp rally. FMA is a popular anime series about two sorcerer brothers. One has a metal arm, and one is cursed inside a suit of armor. During the summer, young fans of the series can go to train stations collecting stamps in a special book. Then, they can send the book in to receive a special prize.

The heat hasn't let up, and that means the Gion Festival (Gion Matsuri) in Kyoto tonight is going to be a sweat-fest. It's one of the most popular festivals in Japan, and the streets are jam-packed with people. The Gion festival has its roots in the Heian period (794-1185), and its purpose was to pray against plague and disease. During the festival, you can once again see hoko (tall, colorful moving towers) paraded through the streets. Take note: Those suffering from even mild claustrophobia or enochlophobia (fear of crowds), need not apply.

Japanese Fun Fact!

British soccer star David Beckham is a bigger name by a long shot than any current American-born athlete in major sports.

Big shot American celebs often appear in TV commercials here. Liv Tyler does one for Mt. Rainier latte cup, and Natalie Portman for Lux Super Rich shampoo. Even Kevin Costner is featured in print ads for coffee. Japanese Fun Fact! The Japanese put corn, mayo, potatoes, and cod eggs on pizza, and shredded dry seaweed (nori) and pickled plums on pasta.

DAY THREE—July 16

Today, I get a hanko--which, unfortunately, is not code for something obscene. A hanko is a tiny, handmade stamp that Japanese can use instead of a signature for signing important documents. Near a Mos Burger (Japan's answer to Jack in the Box), I find a hanko carver. We approximate my name into a Chinese kanji character, and for 1,000 yen (about 10 bucks), I have a one-of-a-kind souvenir.

It's so hot, it's like riding a bicycle on the sun in a scuba suit. I duck into an air-conditioned mall. There's a new Sanrio shop here, and the local junior high kids are psyched out of their minds. Clothes, pencils, face cloths, toasters… they all have Hello Kitty images. Next stop is Uniqlo, more or less Japan's Gap, for a jinbei. These traditional--Japanese pajamas are really comfortable, and for 30 bucks, the price is right. Japanese men wear jinbei to summer festivals, and women wear a yukata, a casual kimono.

Hunger strikes. I'm off to Ramen Town at nearby Namba Parks, another shopping area. It's not really a town, but a better-than-average food court with excellent ramen from different shops around Osaka. Still no jones for McDonald's. How anyone can eat a Big Mac with all this other awesome food around is a question beyond my comprehension.

DAY FOUR—July 17

Next stop is Nara, one of Japan's former capitals. The beautiful Todaiji Temple, the centerpiece of this historic area, was built around A.D. 710 by order of Emperor Shomu. The huge bronze statue inside is dedicated to the Buddha Vairocana. It's the biggest Buddha in Japan, even bigger than the Great Buddha of Kamakura.

Outside the park, dozens of deer--yes, deer--roam freely, and you can feed them with crackers available for purchase at around 150 yen. The deer are friendly, but beware the ones with antlers--especially when you have food in your hand. You can also buy different brands of chocolate candy shaped like deer poop.

For dinner, I'm off with with friends to a very special restaurant in Nara that serves a multi-course dinner all consisting of house-made tofu. Who wouldn't be skeptical? But I'm about to be proved wrong. From the black sesame tofu, to the tofu nabe (tofu simmered in a pot with soy milk), to the tofu tempura, to the tofu marinated with yuzu (a fragrant Japanese citrus), it's all very impressive. One tofu dish comes topped with a seaweed I've never seen. It has beads on it that pop like tiny grapes when you chew.

DAY FIVE—July 18

Did I mention it's hot? It's like someone is sponging me down with warm Turtle Wax. My trip is coming to a close, and I want to see Osaka from the air. I hit the subway and head for one of the city's ferris wheels (kanransha). The stations are usually very clean, but today, because of the heat, a phantom breeze hits me that can only be described as "braised old man."

One ferris wheel back in Shinsaibashi was really eye-catching, with a cool "racetrack" shape. But, I opt for the one right near my hotel. Called the Hep Five, this monster wheel is built on top of a building. From here, you can see Osaka's cityscape in all its futuristic glory. The view is amazing. Not quite as cool as a lap dance from a clown-- but darn close.

Time for lunch. I've seen TV ads for an almond shake at McDonald's. It breaks my will, and I try it. It's horrible. Super sweet, like marzipan on steroids. I've learned my lesson and move on to a small shop for udon noodles. Ahhh, that's the stuff! Cool and slippery, it's perfect for a scorcher day like this. And wouldn't ya know it?! The toilet in the restroom surprises me with an auto-lift lid! Truly, this is a land of wonders!

There's still more to see. There's a roller coaster that goes through a building at Spa World, the Tennoji Zoo, a Hanshin Tigers baseball game, and Kyoto can be explored for days. Downtown Osaka alone is a never-ending feast for the eyes, ears, and stomach. But Mother America is calling, and it's time to brave the 10-plus-hour flight and gorilla-like airport security checks back to the States. Surely, I'll be back to Japan soon. (Maybe they'll have a Burgerville by then.)

••••••••

Meet Yukari

What do you think of Live 8, the recent concert for African relief? Is it a good thing? Should Japan be more involved?

Yes, it's good, demo (but) Japan should take care of Japanese. The taxes are really high. Japan should make things better here, first.

What do you think of all the American fast-food joints in Japan?

Well, maybe not so good. Japanese will become fat--like Americans.

Who's better, Jay Leno or David Letterman?

I'm sorry, I don't know them. What do they do?

Meet Satomi

What do you think of Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie?

I like Brad Pitt very much. But NO! No, Brad Pitt did something bad to the other girl.

What is American fashion?

T-shirt! Baseball cap, and shorts, and sandals.

Who's your favorite goods character?

R2-D2. I love Star Wars. I love it!

Meet Michiyo

What do you think of Tom Cruise using his celebrity status to promote Scientology?

Scientology? I don't know it.

Who do you think will win the World Series?

Yankees!

Why?

I only know Yankees. I like Matsui [Japanese player on the Yankees].

What do Americans eat in the summer?

Hamburger and Coke.

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